Parallels in Indo-European religion: Sidhe and Siddha

Scholars of ancient European and Eurasian paganism and linguistics have, since the 17thC, increasingly looked eastwards for parallels and connections between its surviving worldview, language and mythology, and that of the Indo-Aryan peoples of the Caucasus, the Near East, Persia and northern India, with whom Europeans share a common linguistic and cultural root (the ‘Indo-European’ languages and cultures). This common root can be traced to migrations of people and ideas occurring in at least the 2nd millenium BCE during prehistory, although continuing cultural commerce between east and west over the centuries will have certainly reinforced certain aspects.

One of the more mysterious and seldom-discussed aspects of these links is the proposed conceptual and linguistic connection appearing to exist between the important ancient Rigvedic, Jain, Buddhist and Hindu use of the Sanskrit word-concept Siddha’, with that of the Gaelic religious and cultural tradition of the Sidhe, found in the furthest reaches of Europe’s western shores during the 1st and 2nd  millennia CE.

The ancient Sanskrit word Siddha refers to an enlightened individual who has attained a higher spiritual state of being, having divested of many worldly things which encumber the soul. Siddha is expressed in its most ethereal and radical form within the religious system of Jainism (perhaps the oldest world religion still extant) which ascribes these Siddha a wholly spiritual form without a physical body, based on their ability to overcome the wordly things. Scholars of Irish, Scots and Manx Gaelic mythology will recognise this as a state of being usually ascribed to the ‘Sidhe’ people (Sith, Sí, Shee, Sighe), otherwise often called ‘fairies’, or (in the medieval Irish literary tradition) the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The Sanskrit siddha were said to have achieved siddhi – the highest pinnacle of spiritual achievement, attainment or accomplishment – with skills considered miraculous or magical attained through their rejection of worldy things in order to seek closeness to absolute divinity. In Buddhism and Hinduism in general, the related term Sādhanā (from which we derive the common Indian word for holy man – sadhu) refers to the practices aimed at achieving this divine pinnacle.

The related word Sattva (found in the Buddhist term Bhodisattva, an enlightened one) appears to come from the same root. Sattva is the harmonious, pure uniting principle expressed through the rejection of worldly things, and is one of the three ‘Guna’ or ‘threads of being’ of Hindu belief. The other two are the state of rajas, embodying the passionate, active and confused state of being, and that of tamas, embodying darkness, cold, and resistance to growth which we can all express at times in our destructive nature. To be sattvik in Hinduism is to have conquered and rejected rajas and tamas to have the state suitable to become a siddha in the ‘higher world’. Tamas, on the other hand is the energy of what in western paganism would be called ‘the underworld’ – our heavy ‘anchor’ in the cycles of being and rebirth implicit in eastern (and ancient European) belief.  Rajas represents the ‘middle world’ of ordinary struggle and passion between the lower and higher states.

The religious histories of Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism are full of hagiographies and worship or veneration centred upon those spiritual heroes who have attained the state of Siddha: The wondering Rishis and Muni Keśin mentioned in the Rigveda, the perfected Jina or Arihant siddhas of Jain tradition who live in the highest pure spiritual realm of Siddhashila, the  eighty four Mahasiddhas of Buddhist fame, and the Siddhar traditions recorded on the famous palm leaf manuscripts of Tamil Nadu. One of the most famous Rishis of all in these religious traditions of famous sages was ‘Siddhartha Guatama’, otherwise known as the Buddha.

These were the ‘saints’ of these eastern religions, and the christian ‘saints’ of European, Caucasian and Near Eastern medieval monotheism would also come to take on similar characteristics and abilities (amounting to those of the eastern Siddhi), albeit based upon indigenous local traditions. Indeed, followers of this blog will probably have gathered that I have been suggesting that these christian saints were often given the identities of pagan spirits, gods or Sidhe in order to provide provenance and a sense of continuity.

It might be apparent that Siddhas represent the spiritual ‘culture heroes’ of the eastern religions in question. So what about Ireland’s ‘Sidhe‘?

Well, the earliest reference to this canon of spiritual beings comes from the Hymn of Fiacc, recorded in medieval manuscripts whose form of Old Irish is said to date them to between the 7th and 8thC CE. Fiacc was supposed to have been one of Patrick’s original 5thC CE apostles and the manuscript tradition comes from within the saint’s earliest establishments, so it can be considered of reasonable provenance. It states that, before the official coming of Christ to Ireland in the 5thC CE, the Irish worshipped beings called Síde:

…for tūaith Hérenn bái temel 

tūatha adortais síde…

“…On the people of Erin there was darkness;

The Tuatha adored the Side; …”

(You may be interested to know that Saint Fiacc is honoured on the 12th of October in the Irish Catholic tradition.)

The Irish term ‘Sidhe’ (‘Shee’ or ‘Shee-the’) or it’s alternative Scots form ‘Sith’ (used by 17thC author Robert Kirk), and even its Manx form ‘Shee’, have survived down into more modern times associated with meanings congruent either with fairies, their speculative habitations (small hills or ‘sidhe mounds’), or their status, which in the case of the dead, meant a state of peace’ entirely congruent with the dis-attachment to worldly things upon which the eastern definition of Siddha seems to depend. 

The Gaelic Sidhe were believed to be providential spirits who interacted with the human world but enjoyed a purely spiritual existence. They were sometimes seen as forebears – forerunners whose skill had ensured the wellbeing of the contemporary peoples. Like the Siddhas they were venerated as those who were spiritually ‘perfect’ and were believed – as ancestral spirits – to look after the needs of their subsequent relatives, hence the ‘hearth cult’ and ‘fairy faith’.

The connections – both linguistic and cultural – seem too overt to ignore without further study.  The continuity and complexity of very ancient living traditions are admittedly difficult to reconcile with those whose persistence has been masked by more dramatic religious and cultural changes over two millennia, yet ours is now the age in which this might happen. Maybe Tibet and Ireland are the eastern and western-most world-niches in which a huge common movement of  humanity has set the most diverse aspects of its philosophy?

Tinneas Sidhe: Afflictions from the Fairy Realm.

One of the central doctrines of the Gaelic ‘fairy faith’ (Irish: creideamh sidhe/sí, Manx: credjue shee) was the belief that the ‘Good People’ could cause illness and disease. Although such a belief is well documented, the mechanics of it have rarely been explored in any great detail, although followers of my blog may have been able to gain a passing insight.

An 'Elfshot' or Neolthic flint arrowhead, here mounted as a lucky charm.

An ‘Elfshot’ or Neolthic flint arrowhead, here mounted as a lucky amulet.

The concept of Tinneas Sidhe (in Manx, Chingys Shee) or ‘Fairy Disease’ was a common across the Gaelic realms, and representative examples of its different aspects have been recorded at different times from Ireland as well as Scotland, Mann and Britain. William Camden’s late Elizabethan nationalistic masterwork ‘Britannia’ contained the following observation on Irish superstition from an English schoolmaster at Limerick called John Good, whose account he dates to 1566:

They think, the women have peculiar charms for all evils, shar’d and distributed among them; and therefore they apply to them according to their several AilingsThey begin and conclude their Inchantments with a Pater-noster and Ave-Maria. When any one gets a fall, he springs up, and turning about three times to the right, digs a hole in the ground with his knife or sword, and cuts out a turf; for they imagin there is a spirit in the earthIn case he grow sick in two or three days after, they send one of their Women skill’d in that way, to the place, where she says, I call thee P. from the east, west, south and north, from the groves, the woods, the rivers, the fens, from the fairies, red, black, white, &c. And after some short ejaculations, she returns home to the sick person, to see whether it be the disease Esane (which they imagin is inflicted by the Fairies,) and whispers in his ear another short prayer, and a Paternoster; after which, she puts coals into a pot of clear water, and then passes a better judgment upon the distemper, than all the Physicians.

The exact nature of ‘Esane’ remains mysterious to this day, sounding suspiciously like the term given for a cure, rather than a disease. However, Good’s account in Camden was partly mirrored by another, written some 300 years later: That of William Wilde (father of Oscar). He researched, wrote and lectured about the folklore of the different parts of pre-famine Ireland, a subject which became more popular in the late 18thC when many of the beliefs in the old ways were rapidly spiralling away. His wife, Lady Francesca Wilde used her husband’s observations and notes in her book ‘Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland’ (1887), in a chapter headed ‘The Fairy Doctor’:

The Fairy Doctor

IF a healthy child suddenly droops and withers, that child is fairy-struck, and a fairy doctor must be at once called in. Young girls also, who fall into rapid decline, are said to be fairy-struck; for they are wanted in Fairy-land as brides for some chief or prince, and so they pine away without visible cause till they die. The other malign influences that act fatally on life are the Wind and the Evil Eye. The evil power of the Wind is called a fairy-blast; while, of one suffering from the Evil Eye, they say he has been “overlooked.” The fairy doctor must pronounce from which of these three causes the patient is suffering. The fairy-stroke, or the fairy-blast, or the Evil Eye; but he must take no money for the opinion given. He is paid in some other way; by free gracious offerings in gratitude for help given. A person who visited a great fairy doctor for advice, thus describes the process of cure at the interview:- “The doctor always seems as if expecting you, and had full knowledge of your coming. He bids you be seated, and after looking fixedly on your face for some moments, his proceedings begin. He takes three rods of witch hazel, each three inches long, and marks them separately, ‘For the Stroke,’ ‘For the Wind,’ ‘For the Evil Eye.’ This is to ascertain from which of these three evils you suffer. He then takes off his coat, shoes, and stockings; rolls up his shirt sleeves, and stands with his face to the sun in earnest prayer. After prayer he takes a dish of pure water and sets it by the fire, then kneeling down, he puts the three hazel reds he had marked into the fire, and leaves them there till they are burned black as charcoal. Ali the time his prayers are unceasing; and when the sticks are burned, he rises, and again faces the sun in silent prayer, standing with his eyes uplifted and hands crossed After this he draws a circle on the floor with the end of one of the burned sticks, within which circle he stands, the dish of pure water beside him. Into this he flings the three hazel rods, and watches the result earnestly. The moment one sinks he addresses a prayer to the sun, and taking the rod out of the water he declares by what agency the patient is afflicted. Then he grinds the rod to powder, puts it in a bottle which he fills up with water from the dish, and utters an incantation or prayer over it, in a low voice, with clasped hands held over the bottle. But what the words of the prayer are no one knows, they are kept as solemn mysteries, and have been handed down from father to son through many generations, from the most ancient times. The potion is then given to be carried home, and drunk that night at midnight in silence and alone. Great care must be taken that the bottle never touches the ground; and the person carrying it must speak no word, and never look round till home is reached. The other two sticks he buries in the earth in some place unseen and unknown. If none of the three sticks sink in the water, then he uses herbs as a cure. Vervain, eyebright, and yarrow are favourite remedies, and all have powerful properties known to the adept; but the words and prayers he utters over them are kept secret, and whether they are good or bad, or addressed to Deity or to a demon, none but himself can tell.” These are the visible mysteries of the fairy doctor while working out his charms and incantations. But other fairy doctors only perform the mysteries in private, and allow no one to see their mode of operation or witness the act of prayer. If a potion is made up of herbs it must be paid for in silver; but charms and incantations are never paid for, or they would lose their power. A present, however, may be accepted as an offering of gratitude…

Although this account is particular to one individual from the South of Ireland, the concepts of the the ‘Fairy Stroke’, ‘Fairy Blast’ and ‘Evil Eye’ were more universal within the Gaelic world, and indeed further afield.

The Fairy Blast: The English word ‘blast’, meaning a ‘gust of wind’, was equivalent to the the Gaelic gaoithe, and the ‘fairy blast’ was referred to as ‘sidhe gaoithe‘ or perhaps ‘gaoithe sidhe‘ in Ireland, a term which was once often applied specifically to tornados and dust-devils, which were once believed potent visible manifestations of this force. The connection between spirits and winds is an ancient one: for starters, the Latin word for ‘soul’, anima, also carried the meaning of ‘breath’ as well as ‘spirit’ and ‘life’. Common technical understanding of spirits was that they were invisible and made of a very rarified substance akin to light itself. Because of this subtle nature, they were only usually able to move very light things, such as the air, and it was common for the medieval mind to attribute sudden unexpected gusts of wind to the provenance of demons or spirits. In fact, modern ghost beliefs still continue this tradition.

Why were gusts of wind associated with disease?

Ireland and Britain are lashed by seasonal winds and storms that are usually fairly predictable on the calendar. These events (more typically at the onset of winter) coincide with a change in the patterns of disease, such as an increase in infectious diseases of the respiratory tract. Wind can itself be a terrible and violent force, and is to be feared for this alone. The ancient ‘elemental’ and corresponding ‘humoral’ doctrines of disease saw health and vitality as being in a state of ‘heat’ and ‘moisture’, whereas the wind was ‘cold’ and ‘dry’, and could therefore be considered contrary to health. The mythological Cailleach Bheur of Scotland personified these energies, as did the Sluagh Sidhe – a turbulent aerial host of roaming spirits who were sometimes held responsible for the effects of the Fairy Blast. In the Anglo-Manx dialect of the 19thC the word ‘blass’ (blast) was used to denote a skin lesion – a spot, boil, lump or rash. The English word ‘blister’ derives from ‘blast’ (a German word), indicating that gusts of wind must have been associated with wind from Anglo-Saxon times or earlier. The suggestion is that external diseases were considered a form of buffeting or abrasion from a force without. Interestingly, in Manx skin rashes were also called ‘Chenney Jee‘ (Irish: Tinneas Dia, ‘God’s Fire’ – Ignis Sacer) as it was commonly believed in ancient and medieval times that the gods or god would burn the wicked with ethereal fire, which of course is also the substance from which spirits and divinities were conceived as being composed of. Of course the Irish/Gaelic word for disease – tinneas – is derived directly form that which means ‘fire’ (teine), illustrating that an ancient concept linked disease to the unseen spiritual fire. 

A good crop of Ireland's prime 'fairy herb' - Digitalis Purpurea. Also known as 'Luss Mor' or 'Foxglove'.

A good crop of Ireland’s prime ‘fairy herb’ – Digitalis Purpurea. Also known as ‘Luss Mor’ or ‘Foxglove’, it was used in ‘cures’ to defeat fairy influence. Notoriously it was occasionally fed to ‘changeling’ children, causing their death.

In the Old Testament Bible Book of Leviticus (likely a product of Babylonian Judaean exiles under the influence of Mazdaism), these cutaneous diseases are referred to by the generic term ‘leprosies’, commonly misconceived of as what we now sometimes call ‘Hansen’s Disease’. In the Middle Ages, the Christian church and society was obsessed with ‘leprosy’ in the biblical context, which was the idea of disease caused by divine agency – outwardly visible marks of divine disfavour. Of course, to country people in the Gaelic world these disease-inflicting agencies were fairies, and the church devised an interpretation that that fairies were elements of the angelic host who had been cast out of paradise in the christian narrative of ‘Lucifer’ and his ‘fall from heaven’. Again, from Lady Wilde’s book:

The Fairies as Fallen Angels

THE islanders, like all the Irish, believe that the fairies are the fallen angels who were cast down by the Lord God out of heaven for their sinful pride. And some fell into the sea, and some on the dry land, and some fell deep down into hell, and the devil gives to these knowledge and power, and sends them on earth where they work much evil. But the fairies of the earth and the sea are mostly gentle and beautiful creatures, who will do no harm if they are let alone, and allowed to dance on the fairy raths in the moonlight to their own sweet music, undisturbed by the presence of mortals. As a rule, the people look on fire as the great preservative against witchcraft, for the devil has no power except in the dark. So they put a live coal under the churn, and they wave a lighted wisp of straw above the cow’s head if the beast seems sickly. But as to the pigs, they take no trouble, for they say the devil has no longer any power over them now. When they light a candle they cross themselves, because the evil spirits are then clearing out of the house in fear of the light. Fire and Holy Water they hold to be sacred, and are powerful; and the best safeguard against all things evil, and the surest test in case of suspected witchcraft.

That this concept was once common across Europe (from Russia to Iceland), indicates that it was an official church doctrine to equate fairies and elves with the fallen angels of the biblical narrative’s interpretation. The legend of the Fall popularly ascribed elemental stations to the angels when they lodged in the various parts of the ‘Elemental’ mundane world. The spirits who occupied the air evidently became the ‘Sidhe Gaoithe’. The gradual onset of skin lesions can fit logically with the mode of action of wind which frequently starts gently and increases gradually. Sometimes, mysterious bruises appearing upon the limbs were ascribed to ‘fairy pinches‘, and in the Isle of Man it was once a customary belief that improper piety to the Good People by not leaving them a bowl of fresh water at night would invite these particular skin blemishes. However, the sudden onset of illness was attributed to what is known as the ‘Fairy Stroke’.

The Fairy Stroke and Evil Eye:

A striking or blow by the fairies (or unspecified spirits) was deemed responsible for a number of afflictions which might sometimes also be classed as ‘Tinneas Sidhe’: A sudden sharp pain, seizure or paralysis was likely caused by a ‘stroke’ or blow from an invisible being. The term even persists in the English language for describing the effects of a cerebral infarction or haemorrhage! The idea of being ‘Buailte‘ (‘struck’), is actually quite a complicated subject which combines with that of the Evil Eye, the Fairy Blast, and the concept of being ‘Elf-Shot’.

A belief that fairies and elves cast darts at people to harm them was fairly widespread, especially in Scotalnd and (hence) Northern Ireland, and was reinforced by the presence of curious and beautiful Neolithic-era stone arrowheads that are not occasionally discovered in the landscape, and have long been a subject of curious speculation. Lady Wilde’s description of girls being considered ‘fairy struck’ when they pined away for a supposed fairy lover who desired them owes more, it seems, to the concept of the ‘Evil Eye’ or ‘Jealous Eye’, or to the concept of fairies ‘taking’ people, changelings etc. The mysterious plasticity of this belief in ‘striking’ is best approached by trying to understand the ancient beliefs about light, vision, intellect, the soul and spirits. I have attempted to explain the concept in this article here. See here also. As ‘striking unknown’ and the ‘bad eye’ were also attributes often popularly ascribed to humans practising magic or witchcraft, is somewhat complicated by Robert Kirk’s famous and detailed 17thC account of fairy traditions in the Scottish Highlanders who believed that living people were accompanied by a ‘spirit double’ who is one of the fairies, or as he calls them – Sith:

…THEY (Ed: fairies) are clearly seen by these Men of the SECOND SIGHT to eat at Funeralls & Banquets; hence many of the Scottish-Irish will not teast Meat at these Meittings, lest they have Communion with, or be poysoned by, them. So are they seen to carrie the Beer (Ed: Bier) or Coffin with the Corps among the midle-earth Men (Ed: people of our world) to the Grave. Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have seen at these Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of some Man in two places; that is, a superterranean and a subterranean Inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithstanding could easily distinguish one from another, by some secret Tockens and Operations, and so go speak to the Man his Neighbour and Familiar, passing by the Apparition or Resemblance of him. They avouch that every Element and different State of Being have Animals resembling these of another Element; as there be Fishes sometimes at Sea resembling Monks of late Order in all their Hoods and Dresses; so as the Roman invention of good and bad Dæmons, and guardian Angells particularly assigned, is called by them an ignorant Mistake, sprung only from this Originall. They call this Reflex-man a Co-walker, every way like the Man, as a Twin-brother and Companion, haunting him as his shadow, as is oft seen and known among Men (resembling the Originall,) both before and after the Originall is dead, and wes also often seen of old to enter a Hous, by which the People knew that the Person of that Liknes wes to Visite them within a few days. This Copy, Echo, or living Picture, goes att last to his own Herd. It accompanied that Person so long and frequently for Ends best known to it selfe, whither to guard him from the secret Assaults of some of its own Folks, or only as ane sportfull Ape to counterfeit all his Actions. However, the Stories of old WITCHES prove beyond contradiction, that all Sorts of People, Spirits which assume light aery Bodies, or crazed Bodies coacted by forrein Spirits, seem to have some Pleasure, (at least to asswage from Pain or Melancholy,) by frisking and capering like Satyrs, or whistling and screeching (like unlukie Birds) in their unhallowed Synagogues and Sabboths. If invited and earnestly required, these Companions make themselves knowne and familiar to Men; other wise, being in a different State and Element, they nather can nor will easily converse with them…

Kirk’s account is perhaps the most technical and in-depth of the system behind the fairy belief that we have, written down as it was at the behest of his friends excitedly discussing the emerging scientific revolution among London’s coffee shops and salons. His account is interesting as it emphasises that the Sith or fairies sicken by stealing away the quintessence of earthly objects, beasts and people. He mentions that the Sith strike and pierce, but merely as a means for extracting what they are after:

…They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life, such as Aquavitæ (moderately taken) is among Liquors, leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts…

Of course, the Evil Eye was also responsible for causing transference of quintessence and the Manx called this stolen substance ‘Tarra’, ‘Tharroo’ or ‘Tharrey’. They referred to the condition of being afflicted with the Evil Eye ‘yn aarcheoid‘, and employed a number of charms and rituals in order to recover lost Tarra caused by this state. Manx accounts of the effect of the evil eye and fairies, like many Gaelic fairy tales from elsewhere are frequently accompanied by the victim experiencing a sudden sharp pain. This is illustrated in ‘Ned Quayle’s Story Of The Fairy Pig’ from Sophia Morrison’s ‘Manx Fairy Tales’:

…WHEN I was a little boy, we lived over by Sloc. One day, when I was six years old, my mother and my grandmother went up the mountain to make hay and I was left by myself. It was getting rather late, and they had not come back, so I was frightened, and started off up the mountain to try and find them. I had not gone far when I saw running before me a little snow-white pig. At first I thought it was some neighbour’s pig and I tried to catch it, but it ran from me and I ran after it. As it went I saw that it was not like an ordinary pig-its tail was feathery and spread out like a fan, and it had long lapping ears that swept the ling. Now and again it turned its head and looked at me, and its eyes were burning like fire. We went higher and higher up the mountain, and all of a sudden I found myself at the edge of a steep brow and was all but over. I turned just in time, and ran as hard as I could go down the mountain and the pig after me. When I looked back over my shoulder, I saw that it was jumping over the big stones and rocks on the mountain side as if they had been butts of ling. I thought it would catch me; it was close behind me when I ran in at our garden gate, but I was just in time, and I slammed the door upon it. I told my mother and my grandmother what had happened, and my grandmother said it was a Fairy Pig. I was not like myself that night ; I could not eat any supper, and I went soon to my bed ; I could not sleep, but lay tossing about; and was burning hot. After a time my mother opened the door to see if I was asleep, and when she looked at me, HER EYES WERE LIKE THE PIG’S EYES. I felt a sharp pain go through my right leg like a stab. After that the pain never left me; it was so bad that I could not bear to be touched, and I could eat nothing. I grew worse and worse, and after some days my father said he would take me to a Charmer at Castletown. They lifted me in the sheet, four men taking the four corners, and carried me to a cart. Never, will I forget the shaking and jolting I had in that cart. When we got to Castletown I was more dead than alive. The Charmer lived in Arbory Street and they took me to his house. When he saw me he said that they must all go away and leave me alone with him, so my father and my mother went to wait for me at The George. The Charmer carried me to a room upstairs and sent his wife away, and laid me on the floor and locked the door. Then he took down a big book and placed it on the floor beside me. He opened it at the picture of a little plant-I can see the plant to this day-and he pointed with his left hand to the picture, and with his right hand he made the sign of the cross on my leg, where the stab went through me, and said: ‘ Ta mee skeaylley yn guin shoh ayns en.nym yn Ayr, as y Vac, as y Spyrryd Noo, Ned Quayle. My she guin, ayns ennym y Chiarn, ta mee skealley eh ass yn eill, ass ny fehyn, as ass ny craueyn,’ which means in English-I spread this fairy shot in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Ned Quayle. If it is a fairy shot, in the name of the Lord, I spread it out of the flesh, out of the sinews, and out of the bones. That minute the pain left me. I felt very hungry, and the Charmer’s wife set me at a table and gave me dinner. The Charmer went to fetch my father and my mother, and when they came in I was eating like two. The Charmer told my mother I must not go on the mountain alone between the lights again. The pain never came back. I have been sound from that day to this, but I have the mark on my leg where the stab went through as clear as glass to the bone…

The word ‘archeoid’ is suffixed by the Manx Gaelic word ‘-keoi’ (Scots Gaelic  = cuthaich), which means ‘disturbed state of mind’, ‘madness’ or ‘frenzy’. It was cured by herb magic and through performing certain rituals. This brings us to another manner in which fairies could sicken people:

‘Taking’:

Another pathological power believed exercised by fairies was their ability to sicken or delude the mind, causing their victim to go running off (or be ‘carried off’) in a wild fugue or frenzy, to become lost and disorientated. The above tale of wild pursuit by a fairy pig and a state of delirium occasioned by the pig’s gaze in fact embody the synthesis of ‘taking’, the ‘fairy stroke’ and the ‘evil eye’ all together. Being ‘abducted’ by fairies and placed in a state of confusion is one of the commonest motifs in Gaelic fairy stories. It represents the victim somehow having the entrance to the fairy world ‘pierced’ so that he or she might enter its strange dimensions. To return whole from this realm was dependent upon a number of frequently encountered stipulations, such not eating the fairies food, or taking their wine; Not setting foot on their lawns or meadows is a common caution in Ireland’s medieval fairy tales. Not looking back or conversing with spirits is also a common theme, which has obvious provenance identifiable in the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, such as the tales of Orpheus and Euridice. Fairy ‘taking’ was often ascribed to a ‘fairy horse’ (such as the Kelpie or Nikker) whom the victim rashly decided to try and ride, and fairies were blamed for riding domestic horses at night so that their owners found them exhausted by the morning time. Likewise, humans ‘ridden’ by the fairies would meet the morning dazed and exhausted. The sickening, weakening or befuddling effect of fairies was often ascribed to setting foot upon one of their precincts. Raths, meadows, fairy circles (mushroom rings) and other ‘sidheogue‘ or ‘sidheach’ places had the power to inflict these states. The ‘hungry grass’ or féar gortachwas said to be a patch of grass which had the power to make you suddenly hungry and weak. It was etymologically and conceptually linked to a hunger-spirit called the Fear Gorta (‘hungry man’), a concept recognisably related to the hungry abstracting concept of Fairies desiring the wealth of this world in order to strike a balance with the otherworld (read Kirk and my own commentaries on the Gaelic Otherworld.) In fact, delirium and states of mental confusion are not in themselves uncommon. The elderly are particularly prone to them, as are those who consume too much alcohol for a prolonged period of time. In medieval times, there were further perils faced by the Gaelic peoples which may have influenced their beliefs about mystical and confusing encounters with the Sidhe/Sith/Shee peoples: For starters, famine could cause states of starvation resulting in hallucinations. When food was plentiful, there was the ever-attendant risk of grain crop contamination with the hallucinogenic Ergot fungus (Claviceps Purpurea) as well as the weed-grass known as Darnel (Lolium Temulentum), whose seeds were equally hallucinogenic and could be easily confused for barley. Both of these were known to cause sharp bodily pains as part of their side effects. Darnel also caused trembling and dull vision. Sudden shocks can induce a condition called ‘Transient Global Amnesia’ which seems to be triggered by blood being forced upwards into the neck when people either fall or experience a sudden stressful event, causing a period of memory loss and bewilderment often lasting hours…

Changelings: wasting-diseases, famine and being ‘taken away’:

Obviously, the attrition of jealous fairy-folk was often blamed for the wasting and fading of vitality associated with particular diseases, a fact often noted by observers such as William Robert Wilde during Ireland’s famine era. In Ireland, the term ‘Cnaoidh’ (‘Cnai’) was used to describe the effects of marasmus (whole body wasting due to dietary energy-deficiency) common to that period. Other widespread endemic diseases such as Tuberculosis and Rickets could also cause such states, as would conditions such as cancer. The power of the Otherworld (expressed so potently by Kirk) to take away life and vitality from those considered vulnerable: ‘Changelings‘ were not just infants, but could also be older children, even adults.

The folklore of the ‘changeling’ was a very ancient and common feature of fairy-beliefs up until the 19thC. It was noted that apparently healthy and flourishing children might all of a sudden become sickly and gradually dwindle away. Such beliefs were common before modern medical sciences began to understand and deal with many of the causes of infant and child mortality, particularly malnutrition (which often also affected the minds and judgement of parents) as well as infectious diseases, diabetes and cancers. Formerly, it was believed that the suddenly ‘different’ child was replaced by a fairy child, while the latterly vigorous youngster was taken to continue thriving in the fairy realm.

Summary: The fairies of Atlantic Europe were believed capable of causing disease, either by the mode of removing nutritional vitality and quintessence through their hunger for the goodness of the living, or through physical attacks by searing magical fiery (or chilling) winds, or by dispensing ‘projectiles’ causing sudden ‘attacks’ of disease. They also possessed the power to abduct and control people – making them ‘wild’ or mad.

Pagan controversy in the Isle of Man?

Following the recent news of the apparently hate-motivated vandalism of the statue of Manannán Mac Lir (apparently) by christian fundamentalists in Northern Ireland, another controversial tale of interference with modern pagan practices has emerged from the neighbouring Isle of Man: On 15th December 2014, the local news media reported upon the furtive and (to some) unwelcome removal of the ‘devotional’ objects from the Island’s (in)famous ‘Fairy Bridge’ on the main road between the towns of Douglas and Castletown. The bridge, has proved increasingly popular over recent years as a site of pilgrimage for locals and visitors seeking to honour their dead friends and relatives or appeal to the denizens of the Otherworld for protection in their endeavours. Typically, visitors attach notes, gifts and mementoes to the trees next to the bridge. It has become something of a regular and increasingly exotic destination on the Island’s tourist trail, especially around the time of the Island’s awesome, otherworldly and dangerous TT races – the last great contest-ground of those timeless Celtic Heroes.

The Isle of Man's popular 'Fairy Bridge' - more than just a tourist destination.

The Isle of Man’s popular ‘Fairy Bridge’ – more than just a tourist destination.

The initial impression presented to the reporter who appears to have been invited to witness the removal of devotional objects at the bridge was that these had become an ‘eyesore’: scraps of paper bearing messages of hope and remembrance, ribbons, rags, motorcycle helmets, flags and pieces of motorcycle fairing were removed and disposed of. It appears from the story that the journalist was invited to witness the clearing of these items from the bridge as the news article contained photographs of the perpetrator at work:

‘I’ve driven past it often, and thought that for a while now it was getting out of hand,’ he said, while climbing on to the bridge and removing a bike helmet from a high branch. ‘I had a day off today, so I thought I’d just come down now and do it quickly.’ Really?

‘I’ve driven past it often, and thought that for a while now it was getting out of hand,’ he said, while climbing on to the bridge and removing a bike helmet from a high branch. ‘I had a day off today, so I thought I’d just come down now and do it quickly.’ 

The bridge after the removal of the devotional material.

The bridge after the removal of the devotional material.

Theories about what led to the act are varied: Some cite that the attachment of these objects are not ‘traditionally Manx’, even though folklorists of the 19th and early 20th century record a number of untidy-looking rag wells and ‘fairy trees’ tied with what the Scots refer to as ‘clooties’, and to which locals would pay their respects. Indeed, the phenomenon of tying deposits to the trees at this Fairy Bridge is actually a modern invention, which has only really taken off in the past 15 or so years, before which people would generally only stop to pay their respects to the Little People or raise a hand or finger in a wave or salute as they passed by in their cars. The latest news, sadly, is that a similar ‘attack’ has been made upon the Island’s ‘other’ more secretive Fairy Bridge… 

The 'real' fairy bridge shrine at Ballalona. Now desecrated.

The ‘real’ fairy bridge shrine at Ballalona. Here with recent decoration. Now ‘desecrated’ too?

The ‘Real Fairy Bridge’ is by no means a ‘public’ eyesore, lying as it does off of a secluded footpath in woodland away from civilisation. It has remained a place of quiet reflection and wonder, cluttered with tiny toys in memory of dead children, ribbons tied in memory of friends killed in road traffic accidents, or taken by illness. Candles and coins could until recently be found lodged between the crevices in the stones of the bridge, which was a favourite haunt for young people and families holding vigils of remembrance for their loved ones – believed to reside in the Otherworld with the spirits locals euphemistically and obliquely refer to as ‘Themselves’ (‘Them’s Elves!’) and the ‘Good People’. So… is removal of such items merely a common vandalism of a magical expression of innate spirituality, or a recognition of proper respect for the Island’s somewhat conservative fairies? Either way, the ‘cleaning’ of the fairy bridges has been deemed as sacrilegious and offensive by some locals, as it has been seen as an act of restitution by others of a more conservative persuasion. The fairy faith still enjoys a strong undercurrent of belief among the indigenous Manx peoples and perceived imported ideas about attaching devotional items to ‘their’ bridges and wells do not apparently sit well with some of the population. In the light of the Manannan statue desecration, it would be easy to blame a shady group of presumably christian fundamentalists who are seeking to destroy emergent pagan devotional sites. However – like the nature of the Good People themselves – the truth may be stranger than we first think: This is, after all, the Island which still claims a common belief that Manannan is their god, and is the place where Gardnerian Wicca was largely founded, although that was another controversy for the locals in itself, as Gardner paid little heed to the Island’s genuine vestiges of true ancient Atlantic religion… The trees and bridges will no doubt flourish their messages again soon. What would ‘Themselves‘ or the ‘Little People‘ think of it, I wonder? Has anyone actually asked them?

European paleo-religion: Mater Larum, Holda and Huldra

Ancient Italic religion before christianity is often associated with the hierarchical and immanent-polytheist Olympian model of gods introduced with the economic, cultural and military expansion of the Greek states during the first half of the 1st millenium BCE. This followed closely with the increasing focus of power and settlement upon towns and cities, and a new emphasis upon commoditisation which would reach its zenith with the growth of Rome and its famous Republic, and fall apart after 400 years of Empire. However, the religion of ancient Rome had its roots in a more simplified, animistic and rural spirit and ancestor-based religion common to much larger swathes of Europe extending far into the north and back into the 2nd millenium BCE and beyond…

The traces of this more ancient animistic faith are seen clearly in the form of the disincarnate spirits known as Lares, Manes and Lemures (otherwise Lases, Genii, Daimones, Nymphs, Naiades, etc) whose immanence permeated all households, roads, boundaries, buildings, natural springs, lakes, trees and groves, rocks and bushes in the minds of everyday people. With the growth of powerful city-states, these spirits underwent various phases of promotion, demotion, conflation, renaming and reinvention and added to the already bloating pantheon of divine and semi-divine legendary personages and deified humans that would eventually mark the ultimate collapse of paganism in the face of the stripped, portable and reductionist literal religious philosophies flowing back from the Hellenised Near East. However, the belief in immanent spirits and ancestral gods seemingly refused to die even though the major gods fell away, leaving Europe with rich parallel traditions of animism in the form of folklore about fairies, elves, ghosts, mysterious wild females and man-beasts which persisted alongside monotheism until modern times.

In the literate and artistically creative milieu of the Italic peninsula of the archaic and classical periods, we are lucky to have literary, epigraphic and depictional evidence relating to these animistic beliefs, and in particular to the disincarnate spirits known as Lares or Lases who were at the core of the ancient domestic religion, based in the independent, subsistence tribal cultures of the past. These, like the more modern European ‘fairies’, developed various synonyms and identities based upon their status in relation to individual families, tribes, ethnic groups, places and shifts in power and cultural influence. As regional versions of them amalgamated some became demoted in status, while others grew in stature, this process becoming anchored in the power of the Roman Republic. This produced, from a number of anciently more important divinities, an Olympian hierarchy (important to expression of state power) with a subservient ‘rustic’ pantheon of lesser spirits.

A Lare was what we might call a genius locus – a spirit with a specific haunt. In the ancient world, a spirit was an incorporeal living creature made of what the Greeks called aither or aether, which could be known only by the mind. Gods were deemed the same, and therefore gods and spirits were a philosophical system for describing the mechanisms by which the corporeal elements were excited into life and motion. In Mediterranean immanent polytheism, it was therefore possible for all phenomena to have a god or spirit attached to them. In Roman culture, the Larvae and Lemures were restless and dangerous forms of Lares, whereas Lares themselves were usually spirits in a state of helpful and benevolent equilibrium with mankind. They were ancestral spirits of humans, also known as Dii Penates or Manes, who maintained a presence among the haunts of the living: a form of collective memory, representing the skill and knowledge of ancestors, passed down among the living. Households had shrines to them, and these must have evolved into tribal group-expressions as Lares also had communal shrines encountered in rural and urban districts, at crossroads and along highways. They also had formal worship as part of the greater state-religion, of which more shortly. Festivities associated with these immanent ancestral spirits included the famous Saturnalia and associated Compitalia, the Liminalia, Feralia, Ambarvalia and Lemuria, as well as other rustic celebrations such as the Robigalia. These aspects of the tutelary and protective ancestral genius locus seem to underpin some of the agrarian Etruscan legends I have commented on in other posts. This aspect of italic paleo-religion may have been preserved in Roman culture in the form of the ancient priestly collegia known as the Fratre Arvales (Arval Bretheren) as well as the Augurs and Haruspices. The Arvals held solemn annual rites designed to sanctify agricultural production, ensuring the feeding of city dwellers and thus ultimately the wealth and power of state. This was a chthonic cult appealing to the earthly forces, among whom the dead traditionally resided: a connection to the ancient paleo-religion with its emphasis on death and regeneration. This was such an important tradition that during the period of the Roman Empire, the Emperor himself was always one of the 12 Arval priests, the others being selected patricians who held their office for life. As these priests were not trained specialists like the Augurs, their temple preserved inscriptions of aides-memoires of some of their ritual chants, from which we know the following (Old Latin) ‘Carmen Arvale’ :

Enos Lases iuuate, enos Lases iuuate, enos Lases iuuate

neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
enos Marmor iuuato
enos Marmor iuuato
enos Marmor iuuato
triumpe! triumpe! triumpe! triumpe! triumpe!

This invocation of the Lares (using the archaic form ‘Lases’), Mars/Marmor and the ‘Semunis’ (fertility spirits?) in an important ritual to sanctify agricultural production (90%+ of provincial Roman citizens were agronomists) shines a fascinating light upon older Roman religion. You might ask, for instance: ‘Why Mars? Surely he was a war god?’… Well, for the Romans, Mars was as much a protector and stabiliser during the Republican and early Imperial eras, as he was a symbol for aggressive conquest (during the expansionist era of the Empire). Militarised Romans tended to associate the virile masculine element with warfare rather than that traditionally associated with aspects of nature and animal husbandry during the springtime (Mars’ month is known to us as ‘March’). For the Celts, this symbolism of the fertile war-god was illustrated in the form of the rutting stag or bull with adorned horns, such as is illustrated by the god ‘Cernunnos’ on the French ‘Pillar des Nautes’ and the medieval Irish accounts of the ‘Tain Bo Culainge’ with its ‘rutting’ warriors in their riverside showdowns etc.

The Arvals’ main cult of devotion was to the goddess called Dia or Dea Dia – apparently a female version of the masculine god-principle Dio (Zeus, Jupiter = Dio Pater), otherwise identified with Juno, and also known as Mater Larum – ‘Mother of the Lares’. Juno was, of course, Mars’ mother in Roman myth, so it is no wonder that the Arvals invoked him along with the Lares. This would make Juno (as ‘Mater Larum’) akin to the later Gaelic conception of the ‘Fairy Queen’, as the hypostasis corresponds so closely with later Celtic conceptions of fairies. However, this similarity with later folklore from the historically ‘non-Romanised’ north European world does not stop with the Irish and British Atlantic fringe, but that of the Scandinavians and Germans too:

The evidence for this link comes through a tale told by a single surviving Roman source – the great poet and mythographer, Ovid (1stC BCE/CE), who told a tale about the Mater Larum in his account of Roman festivals known as Fasti. He uses her synonym Lara, claiming her to have been a Naiad (water/spring/river) nymph conducted by Mercury to the gates of the underworld for the sin of betraying Zeus’ love secrets to Juno (of whom she appears to be a ‘hypostasis’). Jupiter apparently orders her tongue cut out as punishment, but Mercury falls in love with her and has intercourse en route to the chthonic realm, where she gives birth to twins (of unspecified gender) – the first Lares. Consequent to her punishment, she became known as Muta or Dea Tacita – the ‘silent goddess’ of the dead. The ‘silence’ is that of the grave – that great keeper of secrets – and her children are hidden in the secret recesses and crevices of liminal places: hearths, crossroads, storerooms (Penates) and so forth.

This account by Ovid of ‘silent’ Lara and her concealed children is curiously similar to the legends which persisted in the (unromanised) German and Scandinavian worlds of a female character known by various names: Holda, Hulder/Huldra, Holle, Hylde. She was the mother of the elves who (in Icelandic and Norwegian Christian tradition) hid her children from God, ashamed by their earthy dirty appearance… The following Christianised account is taken from ‘Icelandic Legends’ by Jón Arnason, (translated by George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnusson) Pub: London, R. Bentley, 1864, pp.19-22:

‘The Genesis of the Hid-Folk’: Once upon a time, God Almighty came to visit Adam and Eve. They received him with joy, and showed him every- thing they had in the house. They also brought their children to him, to show him, and these He found promising and full of hope. Then He asked Eve whether she had no other children than these whom she now showed him. She said ” None.” But it so happened that she had not finished washing them all, and, being ashamed to let God see them dirty, had hidden the unwashed ones. This God knew well, and said therefore to her, ” What man hides from God, God will hide from man.” These unwashed children became forthwith invisible, and took up their abode in mounds, and hills, and rocks. From these are the elves descended, but we men from those of Eve’s children whom she had openly and frankly shown to God. And it is only by the will and desire of the elves themselves that men can ever see them.

The English word ‘Hidden’ translates directly to Hylde/Huld etc in the Germanic tongues. It is immediately apparent that the folklore is immediately comparable to Ovid’s Roman account. It is possible that the ‘Romanised’ Germanic tribes may have introduced this myth into the streams of Scandinavian folklore over the subsequent centuries, but it would be hard to justify, given the obvious religious independence of these regions at the advent of the Christian Roman Empire. What is more likely is that the ancestral cult of the ancient Europeans was widespread and influenced the Italic peoples before the Etruscan and Roman cultures developed and flourished. It is possible that the two important ‘prophetic’ and ‘revelatory’ Etruscan ancestor-divinities, Vegoia and Tages, were the ‘children’ of Lara: Etruscan ‘Mars’ was called ‘Laran’ 😉

The ‘sacred twins’ conceived in a grove between a god and lesser divinity are a continuous theme of Greco-Roman religion: The mythological founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus were supposedly begat by Mars upon Rhea Silvia (said to be a sexually-errant Vestal virgin, but whose name evokes a Dryadic Titaness). Rhea Silvia cast the boys adrift on the Tiber but they were rescued and suckled by a she-wolf (the wolf was Mars’ animal), before being fostered by a woman with the name Acca Larentia, otherwise known as Dea Dia! Castor and Pollux/Polydeukes likewise had a similar furtive beginning when their mother Leda was accosted by a god (Zeus) disguised as a swan, and they seem to be connected – along with Romulus and Remus – to the origin-tale of the ancestral Lares as mentioned by Ovid. This suggests an amalgam of various versions of an older myth with aspects also seen in Irish and Scandinavian mythology. Another example would be the hiding by Gaia (Earth) of young Zeus from his devouring father, Cronus, on Rhea’s sacred Cretan mountain: Mount Ida – perhaps one of the older root-myths of the others…

Another aspect of the ‘Mater Larum’ that needs to be addressed in the form of the fascinating goddess known to the Greeks as Hestia, and to the Italics/Latins as Vesta: She was the virgin sovereign goddess of the domestic hearth, and therefore a candidate to be associated with the ancient domestic cult of the Lares. We know this because Cicero tells us the following (De Natura Deorum 2. 27 (trans. Rackham) – 1stC BCE) :

“…The name Vesta comes from the Greeks, for she is the goddess whom they call Hestia. Her power extends over altars and hearths, and therefore all prayers and all sacrifices end with this goddess, because she is the guardian of the innermost things. Closely related to this function are the Penates or household gods…”

Her cult was associated (as was that of the virgin Bridget at Kildare in Ireland in the 12thC) with the celebration of a hearth with an ‘eternal flame‘. This links quite closely to the Gaelic ideas of fairies/ancestors and the hearth in places like the Isle of Man which persisted down to the 19th/20thC CE. The ‘Getae’ (the Celtic Dacians, ancestors of the Romanians) conquered by Trajan in the 2ndC CE were said by Diodorus Siculus (1stC BCE) to worship ‘Hestia’. Ovid describes Vesta as the third sister of a triad including Juno (Hera) and Ceres (Demeter), implying that she actually represents the fire-cored Earth itself, hence her round domed temple in Rome which suggested the form of the globe of the planet. This copied the form of the Prytaneum at Athens, and was reflected in the design of the Pantheon. He further states that there were no statues of her at her temple – she being represented solely by the eternal flame kept burning there, tended by her famous virgin priestesses. Of interest to Gaelic folklore, is that Hestia or Vesta’s fire was re-kindled with a ritual of friction (an evocation of sexual intercourse) between two pieces of wood, similar to that apparently used for the May/Beltain bonfires (see elsewhere on the blog)… Herein lies a mystery about the ‘virginity’ of Vesta: Far from being a ‘chaste’ force, she is actually a representation of the full sexual potential of the feminine – the flames being a worldly allegory of unconquerable lust and fertile intent. The tales of ‘rape’ and ‘indiscretion’ concerning the genesis of the three sets of ‘divine twins’ at the core of popular Greco-Roman (and Irish, Welsh, Breton and Scaninavian) religious myths are simply an expression of the inevitable transgression of this ‘pure’ state of lust which characterises inevitable natural forces. Vesta or Hestia was therefore also the original ‘Mater Larum’, and actually one of the most fundamental and important goddess-aspects!

The Celtic otherworld in Romanian folk belief

Although largely identifying its modern cultural ethne as ‘Slavic’, Romania’s historical and archaeological past shows that in the ‘Dacian’ Iron Age and late Classical periods its identity was definitely what we today would consider ‘Celtic’. This identity survived until the ethno-cultural engineering of Romanisation, and then the ‘migration period’ displacements of the late 3rdC CE which caused Roman withdrawal in the face of southern migration of Goths and westward migration of Scythic peoples: This introduced the cultural and linguistic foundations nowadays associated with the idea of ‘Slavic’, albeit with an enduring ‘Roman’ identity, preserved in the country’s name. These processes culminated with the early medieval hegemonies of the Caucasus tribes of Avars and Bulgars who eventually formed a stable state which, by fits and starts, had finally Christianised under Byzantine influence by the 9thC CE.

When Herodotus commented upon the Dacians (called ‘Getae’ by the Greeks) in his 5thC BCE Histories, he noted in particular that these peoples believed in the continuity of the soul after death. They were, after all, a people related to the Thracians, among whom the poet-seer Orpheus was supposed to have arisen, providing the European classical world with one of its most important religions, believing firmly in reincarnation. This provided its adherents with a particular map of the Otherworld which modern Celticists can quite easily identify with…

In the modern popular understanding about Romanian folklore, the most influential stories and beliefs surround the dark and fearful aspects of Strigoi – the restless dead who wish to abstract the life-force of the living. These are the model for the modern conception of vampires (and werewolves), and who we nowadays like to think of as humanoids with long sharp canines used to bite and suck the physical blood from peoples’ bodies. The reality (if you can call it that) of the idea of Strigoi is somewhat more complicated, and deeply tied to the ancient beliefs of souls and the otherworld which underpinned the religion of Europe’s Iron Age peoples, possibly extending deeper into antiquity. Characteristically, Strigoi can be either human (‘witches’ – the Italic word for ‘witch’ is ‘Strega’), but they might also be the undying or resurrected dead who seek to abstract human life-force (sometimes as actual blood) and who sicken their victims before finally taking their lives. They can shape-shift into animal forms and pass normally insurmountable physical barriers, and become invisible.

Coupled to the belief in a more sinister Stregoi is the important Romanian myth of the Blajini – the meaning of which translates almost exactly to that same phrase used in Ireland for fairies: ‘Gentle People’. These were spirits supposed to occupy a parallel reflected otherworld which mirrored our own, and at there is still a tradition associated with them, celebrated at Easter, known as Paştele Blajinilor. This festival (often celebrated a week or so after Easter proper) has strong associations with the ancestral dead. Apart from visiting or tending the graves of the departed, it is attached to a custom in which dyed or decorated eggs (often red) were made and eaten in their honour and the shells dropped into rivers to take them to the Blajini (the idea being that they should then know that it was Easter)! Readers of my blog will recognise that this custom is another explicit demonstration of an ancient European belief that all rivers flow to the ‘world-river’ (Apa Sâmbetei to Romanians, Okeanos to the Greeks), which bounds the shores of both our own and the ‘other’ world. Apa Sâmbetei is usually translated or understood as ‘Saturday’s Water‘, but is actually fairly obviously ‘Saturn’s Water‘ since the realm of Saturn or Cronus was in ancient mythology upon the far shores of Okeanos. The term evidently comes through the influence of Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians. Romanian folklore held that the souls of departed travelled through streams and rivers to reach the Otherworld, and this is exactly paralleled in the remains of Celtic pagan beliefs demontrated throughout medieval Irish literature, as I have previously discussed.

More interestingly, another belief attached in traditions to the Blajini was that they continually fasted in the Otherworld in order to sanctify our own world with the divine grace this practice bestows upon christians. They therefore provided a ‘boon’ to humanity, that demanded respect. This is the same belief that Scots minister Robert Kirk described in the Scottish Highlands in his 17thC ‘Secret Commonwealth’ manuscript, concerning the otherworld ‘counterbalance’ – namely when we have plenty, ‘they’ have scarcity!

Both traditions – Strigoi and Blajini – therefore represent different aspects of the same original spirit-belief which so pervaded ‘Celtic’ Europe. They show the idea of the dead living in an inverted state in the otherworld, and whose behaviour towards us seeks to address an imbalance between a mundane and a spiritual existence. However, the ‘reincarnate’ dead who walk the earth again could have no place within the Christian cosmology and folklore except as some fearful ‘evil’ force representing death, darkness, disease and chaos – these evidently evolved to become the Stregoi, whereas the Blajini were ‘allowed’ a continued existence as they largely stayed in the ‘spiritual’ realm beyond the concerns of mundanity, and therefore could not transgress the Christian doctrines to such a degree. In fact, the two ‘archetypes’ are more of a continuity, so that Blajini are sometimes of a more fearful aspect. They are therefore both analogous to the spirits of the Gaelic world, and indeed seem to share the same ancient doctrinal heritage…

 

 

 

‘Fairy Paths’ in the Gaelic world

The belief in Ireland (and elsewhere) that certain fairies were restless and compelled to wander from place to place caused a superstitious belief in ‘fairy paths’. These typically connected the various places where fairies were believed to haunt – their hills and raths, and ‘dancing grounds’ or meadows. People tended to avoid building on these perceived routes, as illustrated by the following folktale from The Fireside Stories of Ireland by Patrick Kennedy (Pub. Dublin 1870, McGlashan & Gill) pp.142-143:

THE FAIRIES’ PASS

It is known that the hill folk in their nightly excursions, and in the visits of one tribe to another, go in a straight line, gliding as it were within a short distance of the ground, and if they meet any strange obstacles in their track they bend their course above them, or at one side, but always with much displeasure. A farmer named Finglas, a stranger to the old ways of the country, took this farm and was not at all satisfied with the accommodation offered by the old farm house and yard.There was neither cow-house nor stable, except an excuse for such conveniences at the end of the yard. He would have new buildings made at the side, and dug out the foundation at once, but was warned that the Fairies Pass lay directly across the bawn, and that it would excite their sovereign displeasure to find stable or barn or cow-house in their way. Unhappily, Finglas, though married to a Roman Catholic wife, was himself a benighted Presbyterian, and as such a contemner of all reverence due to the Good People. But see, the result of pretending to be wiser than your neighbours: Scarcely were the buildings thatched and the cows and horses installed in their niches when the wisdom of the old people became evident. One animal after another without apparent cause began to refuse its food, languished, and died. In vain was recourse made to the most skilful cattle doctors. Their medicines proved naught, and fairy men or women would have nothing to do with the devoted beasts – they were on the Fairies Path. Not until three fourths of his cattle were slain by the elf bolts was Finglas overruled, and at last persuaded to construct new buildings at the end of the bawn.

The ‘lesson’ illustrated by such a typical tale of ‘fairy paths’ is not too dissimilar to those associated with fairy hills and raths/forts, and likewise of the ‘fairy grounds’ or lawns where they were supposed to hold their revels: Humans had better be careful, lest the ever-hungry Otherworld exert its frightening ‘abstracting’ influence over the offender. The great survey of Irish oral folklore organised by the Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann during the early-mid 20thC was to uncover many similar tales.

However, the paths taken by the People of Peace were not always limited to these actual or imagined routes connecting landscape features. In many ‘celtic’ regions, there is a belief that the invisible ones cannot cross running water directly, and this has apparently led to spirits being associated with certain ‘fairy bridges’ such as those found in the Isle of Man. The famous Norwegian folktale of the three ‘Billy Goats Gruff’ and the troll who lived under the bridge may have some bearing on this local tradition.

The Kewaigue (Oakhill) 'Fairy Bridge' in the Isle of Man. It was built off the main track by about 30 yards, and sits mysteriously among the trees...

The Kewaigue (Oakhill) ‘Fairy Bridge’ in the Isle of Man. It was built off the main track by about 30 yards, and sits mysteriously among the trees…

By the same logic, boundary walls (particularly those with ‘hallowed’ ground, such as burial grounds and churchyards) were considered another place where spirits were more likely to be concentrated and encountered. Likewise, certain boundary lines and walls between property gained similar attributions, sometimes depending upon the land use and ownership.

‘Fairy Holes’ and boundaries in the Isle of Man:

A ‘fairy hole’ was a hole in an earth or stone hedge where three property boundaries coalesced. Manx people who used to have a strong belief in fairies, would toss a stone (usually a quartz pebble) into one of these after spitting upon it, in the hope that the spirit world would take their illness or bad luck from them. The belief appears to have been based upon an idea that fairies travelled along walls and boundaries between land divisions.

3rd Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey – Andreas. Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 1911:” … At a corner formed by the boundary fences of the three Quarterlands of Keeill Tushtag, Braust and Ballaquane, was a ” Fairy-hole, ” or hollow in the top of the earthen embankment, about 12 in. diam. We were told that “any one wanting a cure would put in a stone with a spit,” the object no doubt being to identify it more particularly with his own person, so that his own malady or affliction should pass into it. That this was so, and that the malady was capable of being conveyed to another, is made clear by the fact that our informant’s father had once taken one of the stones out of the Fairy Hole and become very ill ; he did not recover till he had returned it… “

This belief that fairies travelled along walls and other boundaries (such as streams and rivers) probably arose from the fact that in former times (possibly since the establishment of christianity), such boundaries were regularly walked and the property they enclosed blessed by the clergy in a ceremony known as rogation, designed to repel evil influences (demons etc) and promote fertility. Such boundaries were liminal places, existing ‘between’ such nebulous human ideas of ownership and supposed sanctity, in which spiritual entities might find a place to manifest. This idea appears slightly different to the Irish one previously mentioned in which fairies troop between their allotted hills and forts. However, this does not mean that the Manx people had, on the whole, radically different ideas about fairies to Irish or Scots people: Fairies were believed to have habitations and places of retreat between which they travelled. They were believed more mobile and active at certain times of day (dusk and nightime), and of the year (Samhain, Beltane). Encounters with them at these places risked the health and sanity of humans and their property, and ‘apotropaic’ measures would be taken to ameliorate any potential harm or fear.

The difference in what was considered a ‘fairy path’ was influenced as much by the customs and politics of land tenure and boundary definitions as by medieval religious customs and the arrangements of ancient manmade structures. Ancient trackways could become ‘fairy paths’, and in Ireland’s flat boglands, these would inevitably be constructed in straight lines between prominent areas of high ground, which unsurprisingly were associated with mysterious and ancient human structures. Tribal boundaries within the Gaelic world at the advent of Chrisitianity were based around the needs for transhumance pastoralism with central defensive positions coupled to more elevated retreats. In the Isle of Man, which (like parts of Ireland, the Hebrides and West Highlands of Scotland) experienced Norse settlement in the middle ages, land was traditionally divided into small estates based upon an allodial system of freeholds. These were increasingly incorporated into more extensive ‘feudal’ estates following the Norman conquests and expansion of continental monasticism. The impositions of English and British expansionism from the Early Modern period onwards further upset these traditional land boundaries and usages. The combination of these different historical and cultural boundary changes all had a deep influence upon the fairy beliefs associated with liminal and marginal places…

 

Fairy Doctors, Sluagh Sidhe and Fianna

In the 5thC a crack commando unit was sent to purgatory by St Patrick for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade into the Gaeltacht underground. Today, still wanted by the church, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem – if no one else can help – and if you can find them – maybe you can hire: The F-Team

The idea of a group of heroes who battle the monstrous, the fateful and the chaotic at the boundaries of safe everyday existence is a pervasive feature of European mythology, extending back for as long as stories have been recorded. In the Gaelic language zones, perhaps the most important representatives of this legendary theme are Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fianna.Through their battles (and romantic encounters) with the magical denizens of legend, and their willingness to lay down their lives and suffer to do this, they become heroes who benefit the people, and their stories are marked by an enduring fondness.

What struck me as interesting about the aforementioned story of Aleisoun Pearsoun (put to death for witchcraft in Fife in 1588) was that her ‘story’ of how she acquired her powers seems to mirror and include aspects of that of the legendary Fianna:

1. She – like Fionn – joins a fairy band who take her on a wild adventure.

2. She ‘marries’ (has a sexual initiation) with a fairy she meets in the wilds. Fionn’s paramour was a woman in the form of a deer who he catches when hunting. Their magical son (poetry) is Oisin (‘Little Deer’).

3. She is tested with great adversity by the Otherworld denizens, who make her ill, but is given magical weapons with which to combat them.

4. She overcomes and returns with knowledge of its secrets, and becomes a warrior against the perils of the Otherworld (disease).

In fact, hers is not a dissimilar story to that of traditional Gaelic folk-healer characters such as Biddy Early (Ireland 19thC) and elsewhere besides. It is a feature pertinent to stories of ‘shamans’ and ‘medicine men’ etc from around the pre-modernised world.

The Fianna and the Sluagh Sidhe:

The fact that the ‘wild band’ or ‘fairy cavalcade’ in Gaelic folk-belief would have had something to do with Fionn and the Fianna often seems implicit, but it is quite rare to see this connection made explicitly in pre-20thC folklore accounts. Aleisoun Pearsoun’s fairy-band were apparently capable of both mirth and malice, which is a possibly a fair description of the legendary antics of the warlike Fianna. Nonetheless, apart from her kindred spirits who protect her, the cavalcade seem mostly harmful, and it is in understanding how to deal with this harm that she understands how to cure diseases. For this reason, we must turn our attention to the chaotic harmful fairy cavalcade, referred to in folklore as the Sluagh Sidhe or Sluagh Sith/Slieu Shee.

‘Sluagh Sidhe’ translates literally as ‘Fairy Host’ or ‘Fairy Army’. Robert Kirk (c.1690) provided one of the earliest accounts of the belief in these fairy hosts:

“… Moreover, this Life of ours being called a Warfair, and God’s saying that at last there will be no Peace to the Wicked, our bussie and silent Companions also being called Siths, or People at Rest and Quiet, in respect of us; and withall many Ghosts appearing to Men that want this Second Sight, in the very Shapes, and speaking the same Language, they did when incorporate and alive with us; a Matter that is of ane old imprescriptible Tradition, (our Highlanders making still a Distinction betwixt Sluagh Saoghalta and Sluagh Sith, averring that the Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged;)… “

As can be seen, Kirk gave two forms supernatural ‘Sluagh’, An Sluagh Saoghalta meaning, literally, ‘The Temporal/Earthly Host’. Kirk himself offers no translation to explain what he calls ‘Sluagh Saoghalta’ (‘Slooa Sheelta’) and uses the term only once. The implication from his fairy narrative is that one host is ‘spiritual’ and the other ‘of the mundane world’, probably meaning those ‘left behind’ due to sinfulness during their lives and more prone to the brutish acts that characterised a difficult existence. So far as I have been able to find out, there are few other references to ‘Sluagh Saoghalta’ from recorded folklore, it being more of a term used in Gaelic christian literature, so let us focus on the Sluagh Sidhe/Sith, a term which probably encompasses both ideas:

Source: Popular tales of the West Highlands, orally collected, Vol. 3 – John Francis Campbell, Pub: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862; pp.340-341

“….A doctor told this anecdote—

“Do you see that kind of shoulder on the hill? Well, a man told me that he was walking along there with another who used to “go with the fairies,” and he said to him—

“‘ I know that they are coming for me this night. If they come, I must go with them; and I shall see them come, and the first that come will make a bow to me, and pass on; and so I shall know that they are going to take me with them.’

“‘Well,’ said the man, ‘we had not gone far when the man called out, ‘Tha iad so air tighin.’ These are come. I see a number of ‘ sluagh’ the people; and now they are making bows to me. And now they are gone.’ And then he was quiet for a while. Then he began again; and at last he began to cry out to hold him, or that he would be off.

“Well,” said the doctor, “the man was a bold fellow, and he held on by the other, and he began to run, and leap, and at last (as the man told me) he was fairly lifted up by the ‘sluagh,’ and taken away from him, and he found him about a couple of miles further on, laid on the ground. He told him that they had carried him through the air, and dropped him there. And,” said the doctor, “that is a story that was told me as a fact, a very short time ago, by the man whom I was attending.”

Not far off I was told this in a house full of people, all of whom knew the story, and seemed to believe it implicitly.”

This account was corroborated by Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gaedelica Volume 2, pp.3301-331) – as usual, my emphases:

Sluagh – ‘Hosts’, the spirit world – the ‘hosts’ are the spirits of mortals who have died. The people have many curious stories on this subject. According to one informant, the spirits fly about “n’an sgrioslaich mhor, a sios agusa suas air uachdar an domhain mar na truidean’ – ‘In great clouds, up and down the face of the world like the starlings, and come back to the scenes of their earthly transgressions’. No soul of them is without the clouds of earth, dimming the brightness of the works of God, nor can any make heaven until satisfaction is made for the sins on earth. In bad nights, the hosts shelter themselves, ‘ fo gath chuiseaga bheaga ruadha agus bhua-ghallan bheaga bhuidhe’ ‘behind little russet docken stems and little yellow ragwort stalks’. They fight battles in the air as men do on the earth. They may be heard and seen on clear frosty nights, advancing and retreating, retreating and advancing, against one another. After a battle, as I was told in Barra, their crimson blood may be seen staining rocks and stones. ‘Fuil nan sluagh’, the blood of the hosts is the beautiful red ‘crotal’ of the rocks, melted by frost.

Crotal_Blood

These spirits used to kill cats and dogs, sheep and cattle, with their unerring venemous darts. They commanded men to follow them, and men obeyed, having no alternative.

It was these men of earth who slew and maimed at the bidding of their spirit-masters, who in return ill-treated them in a most pitiless manner. ‘Bhiodh iad ’gan loireadh agus ’gan loineadh agus ’gan luidreadh anus gach lod, lud agus lon’–They would be rolling and dragging and trouncing them in mud and mire and pools. ‘There is less faith now, and people see less, for seeing is of faith. God grant to thee and to me, my dear, the faith of the great Son of the lovely Mary.’ This is the substance of a graphic account of the ‘sluagh,’ given me in Uist by a bright old woman, endowed with many natural gifts and possessed of much old lore. There are men to whom the spirits are partial, and who have been carried off by them more than once. A man in Benbecula was taken up several times. His friends assured me that night became a terror to this man, and that ultimately he would on no account cross the threshold after dusk. He died, they said, from the extreme exhaustion consequent on these excursions. When the spirits flew past his house, the man would wince as if undergoing a great mental struggle, and fighting against forces unseen of those around him. A man in Lismore suffered under precisely similar conditions. More than once he disappeared mysteriously from the midst of his companions, and as mysteriously reappeared utterly exhausted and prostrate. He was under vows not to reveal what had occurred on these aerial travels.

I took down several stories of persons who went with the ‘hosts.’ Here is one of the stories of the ‘hosts’ summarised:–The beautiful daughter of a king of France was taken up by the ‘hosts,’ and carried about in the air, over lands and seas, continents and islands, till they came to the little island of Heistamal, behind Creagorry, in Benbecula, where they laid her down in such an injured state that she died from the hard treatment; not, however, till she had told about the lands to which she had been carried, and of the great hardships she had endured while travelling through space. The people of the island buried the princess where she was found.

The ‘sluagh’ are supposed to come from the west; and therefore, when a person is dying, the door and the windows on the west side of the house are secured to keep out the malicious spirits. In Ross-shire, the door and windows of a house in which a person is dying are opened, in order that the liberated soul may escape to heaven. In Killtarlity, when children are being brought into the world, locks of chests and of doors are opened, this being supposed, according to traditional belief, to facilitate childbirth.

These Hebridean and Highland accounts concur with records of similar beliefs from Ireland and the Isle of Man. The Sluagh Sidhe were dangerous, vengeful and often angry – they were represented (as Aleisoun Pearsoun was informed) by gusts of wind which marked their passing. These fairy ‘blasts’ might burn your skin with ignis sacer or boils or other visible cutaneous conditions. They strike you with fairy darts rendering you sick, or paralysed down one side (a ‘stroke’, the name still used in medicine today). They might also carry you away in a state of delirium to a place you had no intention of being – you would be ‘taken‘ by them, sometimes into their own fairy world!

The Sluagh Sidhe/Sith were – like the Fianna of ancient Ireland – bands of souls who roamed the world outside of the laws of settled everyday life. They were dangerous and liminal, yet potentially helpful and – in the fairy faith discussed by Kirk and other commentators – could redeem themselves, sometimes by sharing the knowledge of how to ‘heal’ the harm they cause, and from there could pass to a different place – in the west, beyond the sunset.

A Fairy Doctor was a specialist who understood these modes of harm caused by these Fairy Hosts. He or she also understood the ‘principle of inversion’ which governed how we and the otherworld interacted together, and was able to intervene or advise in redressing this balance.